In a series of four studies, Dr. Juliana Schroeder and colleagues explored the role of communication mode (speech vs. text) in individuals’ perceptions of those with whom they strongly disagreed. The researchers found that the voice has a humanizing effect on participants’ views of their opponents.
“’I think’ is a fact; ‘you think’ is a guess,” the researchers write. “This inferential guesswork about the minds of others is essential to social life because failing to infer that another person has mental capacities similar to one’s own is the essence of dehumanization—that is, representing others as having a diminished capacity to either think or feel, as being more like an animal or an object than like a fully developed human being.”
Prior research has shown that when individuals assess those with views and values different from their own, dehumanization often occurs. Furthermore, it is common for disagreement to be seen as a result of the other person’s failure to “think reasonably” about a given topic, rather than as divergent ways of seeing the same issue. In a set of related studies, Shroeder and her team sought to explore whether an individual’s voice, as embodied in speech, signals the presence of thinking and feeling to others and thus makes the speaker seem more “humanlike” than she or he otherwise would through text-based communication.
The researchers were interested in focusing on the “paralinguistic cues” expressed through human speech, as opposed to the content of speech. They explain that paralinguistic cues convey distinctly human qualities connected to the “mental capacities” of thinking and feeling, which include reasoning, intellect, and emotional life.
“Text alone lacks…paralinguistic cues that reveal uniquely human mental capacities, thereby enabling dehumanization if readers do not compensate for the absence of these cues.”
Through four studies, the researchers investigated their hypothesis that media containing the human voice would produce more humanized speaker evaluations than text-based media. In their first study, the researchers videotaped participants (“communicators,” n = 6) speaking about their opinions on a contentious issue. They then randomly assigned other participants (“evaluators,” n = 297) to either watch videos, listen to audio recordings, or read transcripts of communicators’ speeches.
Represented in the communicator group were those with strong for and against views on three highly controversial issues, identified by the researchers in a pretest survey – abortion, the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and music (country vs. rap). Evaluators used a “well-validated” humanization scale to assess communicators. The scale’s two main factors focus on cognition and intellectual ability (e.g. rating how “rational and logical” someone is) and social and emotional characteristics (e.g. assessing a person’s responsiveness and warmth).
In the second study, the researchers examined their original hypothesis through the lens of another polarizing topic: political elections. In this study, communicators (n = 8) provided a written opinion statement about their favored 2016 U.S. presidential primary candidate, in addition to being videotaped discussing their views. Evaluators were randomly assigned to conditions in which they either watched, listened to, read a speech, or read a written statement by communicators with whom they agreed or disagreed.
The third study replicated the second in the context of the 2016 U.S. presidential general election; evaluators rated the human qualities of communicators who discussed their support for one of the two Presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
Lastly, the fourth study expanded on the prior three to examine how participants’ assessments of an opponent’s humanness might change when listening to speech devoid of paralinguistic signals. In order to study this question, the researchers used “text-to-speech computer software” to transcribe speeches from Study 2, thus producing “mindless human voices” absent of the paralinguistic cues typical of human speech. Evaluators (n = 666) in randomly assigned groups then analyzed the “authentic” speech, “mindless” speech, or transcripts of one of eight communicators’ views on their U.S. presidential primary candidate of choice. Using a multilevel regression model, the authors found that the paralinguistic cues of intonation and percentage of pauses “significantly predicted ratings of humanness.”
Based on their overall findings from the four studies, the authors conclude that communication medium may moderate an individual’s inclination to “dehumanize the opposition.” For example, in Study 1, they found that evaluators listening to audio recordings of communicators judged them to be significantly more “humanlike” (humanization subscale means = .63, .71) than those who read transcripts (subscale means = .06, .27).
Although their findings varied and were thus inconclusive in instances of agreement between evaluator and communicator, in cases of disagreement, the researchers found that hearing communicators’ voices (versus reading text-based messages) produced a clear trend of reduced dehumanization. This was true for speech transcriptions and written statements alike.
“The tendency to denigrate the minds of the opposition may be tempered by giving them, quite literally, a voice.”
The researchers also note that, unexpectedly, they found the voice to have a “stronger effect” on human cognition and intellect subscale ratings than on emotion-focused subscale ratings. They speculate that this could be due to the voice’s ability to more perceptibly express “thinking capacities” than those connected to feeling, or, alternately, to the experimental situation itself, which prompted participants to discuss their thoughts on a given topic rather than “their emotions or interpersonal experiences.”
As the article does not include a limitations section, it is unclear whether and how the authors might have accounted for the possible effect of communicators’ individual differences, which would have been evident in audiovisual and audio recordings, on evaluators’ assessments of them. Although the article does include the mean age and gender breakdown of communicators in each study, the authors do not discuss how these factors might have affected evaluators’ perceptions; nor do they outline other potentially influential communicator characteristics (e.g. gender, race, facial expressiveness, gestures, physical attractiveness, etc.).
The authors’ findings have implications for technology’s role in contemporary human interaction and relationships. They note that while technology has enabled people with vastly different backgrounds and views to communicate directly, many of these interactions now occur online, through “text-based media.” They encourage people to thoughtfully choose the setting of their interactions, depending on their desired outcome. In closing, they write:
“If mutual appreciation and understanding of the mind of another person is the goal of social interaction, then it may be best for the person’s voice to be heard.”
Schroeder, J., Kardas, M., & Epley, N. (2017). The humanizing voice: speech reveals, and text conceals, a more thoughtful mind in the midst of disagreement. Psychological science, 0956797617713798. (Link)